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Germany’s first democratically elected chancellor used the country’s foreign intelligence service to systematically spy on his biggest political rivals for nearly a decade, a group of independent historians tasked with researching the history of the former intelligence agency has found. German espionage.

The secret and illegal flow of information between the offices of Konrad Adenauer and the head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Reinhard Gehlen, allowed the conservative politician to consolidate his grip on power thanks to a deep knowledge of campaign strategies. , parliamentary maneuvers and internal power struggles of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), then leader of the opposition in the Bundestag.

Klaus-Dietmar Henke, spokesman for the research group investigating the spy agency’s story, compared the scheme to the Watergate scandal in the United States, when Richard Nixon planned to have former CIA and FBI agents wiretapped from Democratic Party headquarters. Unlike Nixon’s failed break-in, however, Adenauer’s infiltration of his rival party was a success – and until now had eluded historians.

The heavily annotated correspondence between the German Chancellor and the spy agency has been preserved for decades in the archives of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Sankt Augustin, but its importance only became apparent after Henke was able to consult it in parallel with declassified files from the BND. Details of the reports were exclusively published by Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Adenauer, a devout Rhenish Catholic who was arrested twice as a political enemy by the Nazis, is still fondly remembered in modern Germany as the chancellor who anchored his country in the Western sphere of influence and oversaw a economic recovery after World War II. The headquarters and internal think tank of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party he co-founded, still bear his name.

Watergate in Germany: 1950s chancellor used spy agency to infiltrate rival party |  Germany
The headquarters of the CDU, the Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, in Berlin. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

“Konrad Adenauer was a key figure of the 20th century and a great German chancellor,” Henke said. “But his friendly arrangement with the BND against the SPD confirms in the most radical way possible that he was also a brutally callous power-seeker.”

Narrowly elected chancellor in 1949, Adenauer was looking in the early 1950s for ways to cement his role at the pinnacle of a freshly forged West German republic that found itself on the front lines of a new conflict between East and Germany. Where is.

The former mayor of Cologne not only feared enemies on the other side of the Iron Curtain but also in the ranks of the centre-left Social Democrats. A 1953 CDU election poster warned that “all roads of Marxism lead to Moscow”, even though the SPD had by then positioned itself as a nationalist and patriotic group.

In December 1953, an opportunity presented itself for Adenauer to monitor and thus keep his greatest political rivals at bay. Reinhard Gehlen, the head of an intelligence agency created as the German branch of the CIA, had obtained as an informant the executive secretary of the SPD at the time, Siegfried Ortloff.

Between 1953 and 1962, Ortloff verbally transmitted nearly 500 confidential memos which were typed up at Gehlen’s intelligence agency and then delivered to Adenauer’s chief of staff, from where they found their way to the chancellor’s office. .

The memos gave Adenauer a major tactical advantage, outlining before public announcements which politicians the SPD planned to field as candidates for chancellorship in federal elections or for the mainly ceremonial role of the presidency.

They allowed Adenauer to prepare in advance for motions the opposition planned to submit or lines of attack that were brewing against his team, such as the one discussing the role that his chief of staff, Hans Globke , had played in the drafting of the Nazi race in Nuremberg. laws.

They gave the Chancellor live updates on the latest internal centre-left debates and the vulnerabilities that accompanied them, whether over German rearmament or his formal renunciation of orthodox Marxism in 1959.

In several cases, Adenauer’s office requested specific information about the political rivals of the German spies. A year before the 1961 national election, the intelligence agency was tasked with digging up information about its challenger, Willy Brandt, such as the identity of his first wife and whether he had played a role in the ‘windup’ of a tearful faction of Trotskyists. during the Spanish Civil War, which Brandt had covered as a journalist while in exile from the Nazis.

Watergate in Germany: 1950s chancellor used spy agency to infiltrate rival party |  Germany
John F Kennedy (left), Willy Brandt (center) and Konrad Adenauer (right) during the US President’s visit to Berlin in 1963. Photography: AP

The secret arrangement with the intelligence agency proved a career boost not only for Adenauer, who remained in power for 14 years before stepping down at the age of 87, but also for Gehlen, whose relationship fledgling relationship with the head of the German government put him in a privileged position to lead the new foreign intelligence agency, the BND, in 1956.

“Gehlen, like Adenauer, did not see social democracy as a political competitor but as an enemy,” said Henke, whose book on illegal BND activities will be published in Germany in May. “What they both practiced for nearly 10 years was a crusade against an adversary they believed was justified by any means possible.”

The motivation of the mole inside the headquarters of the Social Democrats is less clear. An investigation by Süddeutsche Zeitung suggests that Ortloff may have been motivated by personal rivalry and political distrust of former communist Herbert Wehner, a dominant figure in the SPD at the time.

Surviving family members said they could not believe Ortloff would knowingly betray the political movement he began supporting in his youth. But there is no doubt that Ortloff passed on confidential information knowingly: in 1962, the year Gehlen decided to end his secret collaboration, his reliable source sent him a birthday letter which expressed his gratitude “for my involvement as a trusted collaborator”. collaborater”.

Ortloff’s handler at the BND, a man named Siegfried Ziegler, attempted to speak out five years after the surveillance program ended. Between 1967 and 1969, he sent a series of letters to the SPD leadership offering to reveal all about what he described as “reactionary powers” trying to circumvent the laws of the land.

The then SPD parliamentary chairman and later chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, responded with a polite but short letter – and left the veil that had been drawn over the saga firmly in place.

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